Imagine commissioning Edgar Degas for a million-dollar painting. You ask him to create a masterpiece, something dynamic and timeless, vibrant and intriguing. There's only one catch: he must paint on a virtual canvas, one that will vary widely depending upon the viewer's perspective.

In fact, the canvas will change so much from one person to the next, that structures won't display properly, colors will fade ... even disappear; and sometimes, every last element of the design will fail to resolve, leaving the prospective admirer wanting for even a hint of what the artist originally intended.

This sure sounds insane, doesn't it? You would never think of challenging an artistic genius in such a fashion, right? And yet, we ask our Web developers every day to do just this. In fact, we demand that they deliver well designed square pegs to fit all of the round, oval and asymmetric holes everywhere.

The reason is both the blessing and curse of a competitive landscape. Thanks to the fiercely competitive nature of software visionaries, we enjoy an embarrassment of riches in the world of Web browsers: Safari, FireFox, Explorer (in all its mutations), Chrome, Opera - and remember Netscape?

But here's the rub: it's not just the form of sites that change drastically from one platform to the next, it's the functionality. Each browser has its own way of viewing the world, and that means some stuff just doesn't work here or there. That's not what today's Web surfers want, regardless of their stature.

Then consider the cost of designing for all these different platforms. Often, you need to write specific code to accommodate for this browser or that one. And sometimes the common solutions actually contradict one another, such that serving this master amounts to disturbing that one.

This is not a new argument. Competing standards for years have plagued the likes of both developers and end users throughout the business world. Still, one would hope, this late in the game, that some semblance of standardization would rise to the top ... something like HTML, for example.

One solution for dealing with the pain of platform-dependency was JavaScript; another was Flash. Both have been viewed as de facto standards for years now - until Steve Jobs reached his epitome, unveiling the astonishing iPhones and iPads for all the world to see. And guess what: no JavaScript, no Flash.

And then there was HTML5 ... or, rather, there will be. And perhaps that will be the new standard. Or maybe Microsoft will light the way. Or HP. Or Oracle. Or IBM. Or Linux. Or some Chinese superpower as yet to be named. Or maybe we'll just continue to flounder like one-eyed fish in the open sea.

Will we ever learn? It's hard to say. We could find ourselves agreeing on a meaningful standard, such that Web sites would appear neatly on any browser, on any mobile device, on any virtual billboard in any country around the world. There's even an iPhone app that translates text on the fly.

Or, we could wind up like Tantalus, forever tormented by the vision of what we really desire, yet confounded each time we reach for the object of our wishes. Poor Tantalus, he wound up in Tartarus, the lowest place in the Underworld, eternally damned to a lifetime of unfulfillment.

Let's hope that cooler heads prevail, and we all agree to get along, visually. Let's pray that the push of proprietary thinking will give way to the pull of user demands. Let's cross our fingers and beckon a world of reasonable standards, where lock-in won't keep us down, and transparency will free us.

And let's remove the shackles from our designers. Artists must be free in order to excel. They need the openness of a field, or the expanse of a well-lighted room to release their muse. Let us put our prejudices aside and let the dreamers dream ... even if they will not dream of you or me.

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